Life and Death:
Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women.
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By Andrea Dworkin. New York: Free Press, l997, 267 pp., $23.00.
For the past twenty-five years, Andrea Dworkin has taken on the thankless task of exposing, analyzing, and fighting against the widespread practice of male violence against women. In her latest collection of essays and speeches, Life and Death, Dworkin continues to assert that no woman is safe from the threat of various forms of this violence, and that the brutality is systematic and inflicted with the intention of keeping women subservient to men. Although she is careful to note that her work is "not 'about' me" (15), every piece in this anthology honors a vow she made in l972, to use "everything I know in behalf of women's liberation" "(17). The scope of the material is both impressive and moving. In the oLening essay, "My Life As A Writer," she reveals various personal struggles throughout her life, and integrates these experiences into an explanation of her development as a writer. For example, during a period when she watched her brother die from cancer, "I knew...I would have to find a way to use the pain. I truly thought otherwise it would kill me. I decided, coldly and purposefully, to confront the most painful theme of my life--repeated sexual abuse" (37). The result was a rebuttal (included in this collection) to an essay by John Irving in the New York Times Book Review, in which Irving charged that anti-pornography feminists "were purveyors of a new Puritanism" (37). "The logic of my answer to Mr. Irving," Dworkin writes, "was that no one with the kind of experience I had could be called a puritan; and maybe I and other women actually know more about sexual violence than he did; and it was the pornographers, not feminists, who punished women in the public square, as puritans had, for being sexual" (37).
Throughout the book, Dworkin writes in a passionate, straightforward manner. She challenges the reader to care about the well-being of all females, regardless of their social status. Dworkin has no use for theory for its own sake; rather her ideas are firmly grounded in the realities of battery, rape, incest, prostitution, and pornography, and the ways in which they diminish women's lives. She skillfully analyzes a host of pernicious attitudes, beliefs, and myths about women that men regard as immutable truths and serve as the foundation for their abusive behavior.
The starting point for an understanding of this collection is Dworkin's assertion that women's presence in many positions in society from which they were previously barred is not an accurate measure of progress; rather, she insists that we cannot begin to discuss advances made by women as a class until there is a drastic reduction in male violence, particularly in intimate relationships (106). Because violence strikes females in all social and economic categories, middle-class success will not shield women from the wrath of the men they are closest to. Battery "happens to as many as half the married women in the United States," and "four thousand women a year...are killed in their homes, not by strangers who break in, but by men who presumably love them" (152). Moreover, the achievements of women in a "man's world" are resented by males in general, some of whom seek revenge. For example, fourteen women students were murdered on December 6, 1989, at the University of Montreal's engineering school, by a man who was enraged by women preparing to work in a traditionally male profession. Dworkin asks all women to remember "the prostituted, the homeless, the battered, the raped, the tortured, the murdered," because as long as women are being abused "you are not free, nor are you safe. You too have a number; some day your turn will come" (175).
Underlying men's violence is their perception of women as subhuman (xvi); that is, objects who exist in order to satisfy male needs, and who have no right to bodily integrity and emotional independence. Dworkin boldly states that men's "basic premise about women is that we are born to be fucked. That is it" (120). In the logic of male supremacy, if a man has had intercourse with a particular woman, he subsequently owns her, and has the right to use her as he pleases. He may decide to leave, but she has no right to terminate the relationship. If he is upset for any reason, if she tries to leave, if she fails to satisfy him sexually or in terms of domestic service, battery and sexual assault are ways to vent his frustration and to keep her in line. Similarly, men believe that they are entitled to inflict sexual abuse on prostitutes. "When men use women in prostitution," Dworkin explains, "they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body...It is a contempt so deep...that a whole human life is reduced to a few sexual orifices, and he can do anything he wants" (145).
Most men do not feel the need to publicly declare their animosity toward women or to justify their privileges. There is, however, an abundance of sexually-oriented, mass-produced entertainment which speak for them by reinforcing notions of female inferiority as well as training the next generation in the ways of male supremacy. Despite enduring many years of personal and political attacks by sex industry supporters and first amendment absolutists, Dworkin stands firm in her assertion that pornography is harmful to both individual women and women as a class. The "basic dogmas of pornography," Dworkin explains, are that women provoke male abuse because they want it and like it (171). The proliferation of violent acts in everyday life is "made to look natural and inevitable" (133) by images of women and girls being sexually abused, dominated, and treated as sex objects by males. In connecting pornography and sexual abuse, Dworkin states, "It's now boys in their young teen-age years who are committing a preponderance of first assaults against young girls. There are young boys who stick things in infants and kill them. When asked why they do it that way, they say they've seen it in pornography. There are young boys who take guns and try to put them into women's vaginas. Where did they see it? Where did they learn it? Ask them. Ask the ones who have been put in jail, in places for juvenile sex offenders. They will tell you, "I saw it in pornography'" (123).
For over three decades, the second wave of feminism has been responsible for a dramatic increase in public awareness of the epidemic of male violence against women. Stories about rape, battery, sexual harassment, etc., are regularly featured in both print and broadcast media. Yet the violence continues unabated and may even be increasing. Many years of discussions, debates, and pleas have not moved men to change their behavior. Dworkin urges her readers to face the fact that "the war against women is a real war. There's nothing abstract about it. This is a war in which his fist is in your face" (118). Because many men are committed to violence, and "the current legal system, victim advocates /and/ counseling" (43) are not effective, women must be willing to do whatever is necessary to stop violent males. Dworkin is fully aware that the price to be paid for the defense of women is pain and suffering. Nevertheless, she implores women to actively resist: "I am asking you to stop men who beat women. Get them jailed or get them killed, but stop them. Men who rape make a choice to rape. And men who beat women make a choice to beat women. And we women now have choices that we have to make to fight back." "I am asking you to look at every single political possibility for fighting back--instead of saying, 'I asked him, I told him, but he just wouldn't stop.' We need to find ways to do it together. But we need to do it" (125).
In Life and Death, Dworkin has written another volume of essential reading--words, literally to live by. In preparing for this review, I read dozens of passages, over and over again, and was consistently impressed with the clarity of her thought as well as her persistence in pointing out the brutal realities that most people would prefer to deny, ignore, or forget. Dworkin and other radical feminist writers and activists are truly heroines. In these times, when the backlash against women is gaining in breadth and intensity, and feminism has been declared dead or unnecessary, we need Dworkin and radical feminism more than ever.
Review By: David A. Orthmann
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